Baltimore stands to lose another historic landmark after the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) this week declined to block demolition of the former Hendler Creamery, home of the country’s first fully-automated ice cream factory.
The preservation panel voted 8 to 3 on Tuesday to support a motion stating that the structure in the 1100 block of East Baltimore Street — already partially demolished — has lost its historic integrity and is not a contributing structure to the city’s Jonestown historic district.
The vote paves the way for a contract purchaser and neighbor of the property, the Helping Up Mission at 1029 East Baltimore Street, to tear the structure down to make way for a community “green space.”
For Jonestown, CHAP’s action means the loss of a nineteenth-century structure that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and previously targeted for partial preservation as part of a large mixed-use development that never materialized.
For preservationists who monitor the city’s preservation panel, it’s the latest in a series of cases in which the public commission allowed a private developer to tear down buildings in a historic district to make way for a new project without having proof that the developer had sufficient financing to build the proposed replacement. Other examples include the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre at Baltimore and Charles streets, the Tower building at Baltimore Street and Guilford Avenue, and the Southern Hotel at Redwood and Light streets.
Built in 1892
Designed by Jackson Gott and others, the Jonestown building was constructed in 1892 and initially helped power the city’s then-fledgling cable car system. It was converted to a theater in 1903. In 1912, the Hendler Ice Cream Company converted it to the country’s first fully-automated ice cream factory. Hendler remained in business until the 1970s
At a public hearing on April 11, 2017, CHAP approved a plan by an affiliate of the Commercial Group of Hanover, Maryland, to tear down most of the buildings in a two-block parcel bounded by Baltimore, East, Fayette and Aisquith streets to make way for a $75 million, 296-unit apartment building with 20,000 square feet of commercial space and 218 parking spaces.
The plan, by Design Collective, called for key features of the Hendler creamery, including its south and west facades, to be retained and incorporated into the proposed development as a nod to the property’s history. New openings were to be created to accommodate street-level retail space and other changes, and much of the building’s interior was to be gutted and rebuilt to contain residences, parking and commercial space. The architects described the approach as creating “a building within a building.”
Local preservationists praised the design as a creative example of adaptive reuse of a historic structure for contemporary purposes. Kevin Johnson, the head of Commercial Group and its affiliate, Hendler Creamery Development LLC, thanked CHAP at the hearing for its support and promised that his project would help revitalize the historic district. ”It’s life-changing for this entire area,” he told the commission.
After CHAP’s vote, Commercial cleared most of the site to make way for its proposed development but left the Hendler shell and other features standing, braced with steel beams. Once the site was cleared, however, Commercial never moved ahead with construction of the market-rate apartments it proposed. Company representatives later came back to the community with a plan to build affordable housing on the site but didn’t move ahead with that project either. Others in the community voiced displeasure with the way Commercial left the property, calling the partially-braced Hendler structure an eyesore.
Last fall, Helping Up Mission emerged as a prospective buyer for the property, with plans to landscape it as a community green space and potential future development site.
According to its website, Helping Up Mission is a Christian-based non-profit that “provides hope to people experiencing homelessness, poverty or addiction by meeting their physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs.”
Formed in 1885, it moved to 1029 East Baltimore Street in 1955 and later expanded to neighboring properties. Its operations include a 500-bed residential addiction treatment center for men and a 250-bed shelter for low-income and homeless women and children.
The pending sale to Helping Up Mission is contingent on the city’s agreement to issue a demolition permit for the Hendler building. Because the property is in a local historic district, CHAP had to be consulted before the city can issue a demolition permit, and that’s why the commission held its hearing on Tuesday.
CHAP has a two-step process for considering applications to demolish buildings in local historic districts. First, it holds a public hearing to determine if the structure targeted for demolition contributes to the historic district it’s in, without considering what might replace it.
If the commission determines that the structure in question does contribute to the historic district it’s in, CHAP holds a second hearing to consider what the owner proposes to do with the property, whether retaining the building would pose an economic hardship to the property owner and, ultimately, whether to grant a demolition permit.
If CHAP decides the structure in question doesn’t contribute to the historic district, according to city guidelines, authority to proceed with the demolition “will be issued” by the city without a second hearing by CHAP.
Because it voted on Tuesday that the Hendler building has lost its historic integrity and is not a contributing structure to the historic district, CHAP effectively greenlit its demolition.
Eric Holcomb, executive director of CHAP, said after the meeting that the vote was “a hard one” for the commission. He said the members were briefed on a structural report by Century Engineering that concluded the building was “deteriorated beyond repair,” and that inspectors from the city’s housing department concurred with Century’s findings.
During the meeting, proponents said the plan to replace the Hendler building with a green space has strong support from the immediate community.
Members of Baltimore’s preservation community, including the advocacy group known as Baltimore Heritage, didn’t attend the hearing to oppose the demolition the way they’ve rallied to protest other demolition proposals, including a recent plan by the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation to raze a row of houses on West Preston Street to make way for a prayer garden.
The only person from the general public who spoke against the demolition at the hearing was Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a Baltimorean who has been vocal in a number of preservation issues over the years, including the Rouse Company’s demolition of the McCormick spice factory in the 1980s and efforts to save the former Greyhound bus station at Howard and Centre streets.
Shapiro said after the hearing that she spoke up because she considers the Hendler building an “irreplaceable architectural treasure” and “a significant part of Baltimore’s Jewish heritage.” She said she disagrees that the building has lost its integrity and believes it is still salvageable.
CHAP’s oversight of the Hendler site is not entirely over. Holcomb said CHAP will review plans for the green space, since the property is part of the Jonestown historic district. He said the motion approved by CHAP also called for the applicant to place a marker or memorial on the site, to commemorate the Hendler building and its history, and CHAP will review that.
Asked if any parts of the Hendler building will be salvaged and incorporated as part of the marker, the way parts of the historic Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust building have been displayed in a park at the base of the Commerce Place office tower on South Street, Holcomb said that’s a possibility but there are no final plans. At Tuesday’s meeting, “there was conversation that we incorporate portions of the existing fabric into the marker,” he said.
Holcomb said the Hendler façade won’t come down immediately because Helping Up Mission is paying for the work and still has to complete its purchase of the property. He said the city also has to sign off on a land disposition agreement affecting several city-owned parcels that will be part of the green space.
In the meantime, Holcomb said, the building hasn’t been condemned by the city or otherwise deemed a threat to public safety or candidate for emergency demolition, because it has been braced. He said the land could be used as green space for five years or more, until Helping Up Mission is ready to develop it for other uses.